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Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

In which Merlin returns to defeat Morgan le Fay (she that is also called Morgaine), Sir Ancelyn is besotted by a warrior maid and faceth Sir Mordred at Avallion, and the Lord Brygadyer slayeth a beast most terrible, and so saveth all the world.

(Here lies Arthur, the once and future King)

- Sir Thomas Malory

Having torn knowledge out of the mind of UNIT Flight Lieutenant Lavel, a ‘warrior maid’ who could speak Czech when drunk, Morgaine then casually disintegrates the body and turns to the Publican and his blind wife, Elizabeth:
“Did my son drink well? I see that it is so; I must get... the tab.” She reaches out the same clawed hand, which murdered so horribly a moment ago and with great gentleness places it across the sightless woman's eyes. Holding it there a moment, she then turns and leaves.
“Patrick,” gasps Elizabeth on tremulously opening her eyes, “I can see... I can see!”
Racked with shock, she falls sobbing into her husband's arms.

In my humble opinion, the above scene illustrates a new height of maturity in scripting for Doctor Who - unbidden and on a mere whim, a malignant sorceress grants a sightless woman's perhaps greatest wish in return for something totally insignificant. But even this miraculous act is a form of cruelty, not kindness, as the poor woman's response is massive trauma.

Not only does this scene deftly combine the magical stuff of legend with the reactions of everyday people (one of the main points of this story), but also offers insight into the wholly unfathomable motivations of someone immortal and all-powerful.

Battlefield has something for everybody, or so it seems.

Apart from the obvious nostalgic attraction of the return of a familiar face and front fender, there are well-drawn, memorable characters and dialogue, with generally impressive performances and production standards. Add to this an intriguing take on the Arthurian legend and possibly the best Who monster ever, and you have to wonder why Battlefield was the least popular story in season 26 and a ratings low-point in the entire history of Doctor Who.

Why is this story so much less than the sum of its parts?

It may be that the answer is contained in that question: specifically the word ‘story’.

‘Yet some men say in many parts of England...that he shall come again...’
‘Le Mort D'Arthur’

- Sir Thomas Malory, c.1460

Having seen a ‘surrogate’ Brigadier and UNIT at the start of the previous season, we get the real thing here! Most people like ‘the Brig’. Nicholas Courtney's much-loved character is almost as much an identifiable part of the programme as a police box or a Dalek. The Doctor may literally change but the Brigadier represents solidity and constancy in the face of otherworldly chaos. Not only is he a perfect foil for the Doctor (in any of the Time Lord's incarnations) but he rightly deserves the title which the Destroyer mockingly bestows upon him during their final confrontation: “Get off my world!”
“Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you for its champion?”
“Probably - I just do the best I can...”

If the production team had made the brave decision to grant Courtney's long-standing wish of letting the Brigadier ‘go out in a blaze of glory’, the character couldn't have had a better epitaph.

He dominates the proceedings, (when Jean Marsh isn't around), sweeping the programme out from under the feet of the regulars while effortlessly adapting to another new Doctor. As cosy and reassuring a figure as the Brigadier has become, we are chillingly reminded that he has a long career of killing when necessary, as he holds a gun to Mordred's head in Part Four: “Beware this man, Mordred”, Morgaine warns her son, “he is steeped in blood!”

UNIT return, also, in an updated form with multi-racial, unisexual troops and weaponry optimistically designed to deal with Cybermen, Yeti and Daleks. A truly internationally-United Intelligence Taskforce, at last! And if all this wasn't enough, we also have the reappearance of that famous four-wheeled photo opportunity: Bessie!

‘...its inhabitants clearly belong to a parallel world, as is shown by its symmetrical and complimentary juxtaposition to Camelot with its court of King Arthur and the Round Table...’
‘Arthur and the Grail’
- Hubert Lampo & Peter Paul Koster

So the nostalgia factor is very well catered for here. But scriptwriter Ben Aaronovich also presents us with a host of new characters, which generally work very well. Among these, the unlikely romantic duo of Ancelyn and Brigadier Bambera are notable. The noble knight from another dimension is instantly likeable, treating the Doctor and Brigadier with great deference, while pursuing Bambera with such wonderful lines as: “Winifred ...art thou betrothed?”

Marcus Gilbert gives Ancelyn just the right mixture of innocence and battle-hardiness. Bambera, on the other hand, is initially a completely uncompromising character, an extremely tough woman even by today's standards. The production team and Angela Bruce deserve praise for such a brave and rewarding portrayal. A certain wry humour creeps into the character as the story progresses, but not enough to make Bambera's final appearance, joyriding in Bessie with the other principle female characters, plausible. Still, Ancelyn's assertion: “Ah...are they not magnificent?” almost makes up for it.

Mordred seems to be unfairly only remembered for the grossly extended laughter scene as he summons his mother in Part Two. Perhaps a good actor should be able to cope with anything thrown his or her way, but I have to conclude that direction may be at fault here. I doubt anyone could have successfully managed the requirements of that particular scene. Put this sequence aside, watch this story again, with an open mind, and you may find yourself reassessing Christopher Bowen's performance in a surprisingly positive light.

But the absolute heavyweight performance in this story is Jean Marsh's wonderful ‘Morgaine’. Not only can she inject credibility into a startling line like: “I am Morgaine - the Sun-Killer, Dominator of the thirteen worlds and Battle Queen of the S'Rax - what say you?” but she conveys immeasurable power and confidence with a performance as still, icy and deep as a frozen lake. (A lesson that could be well learnt by other cast members). Whether reprimanding her son on his disregard for honour, bantering with the Brigadier, summoning the Destroyer or deep in heartbroken reverie, Jean Marsh electrifies every scene she appears in.

As for our regulars, I believe that Sylvester McCoy has the essential requirement for a ‘Doctor’ - elusiveness, energy and a certain, special charisma. However, like Pertwee, he is an entertainer, not an actor, and in Battlefield it certainly shows. Some excellent dialogue is almost completely lost by McCoy's face-contorting delivery and shouting. I'm definitely not referring to his accent (even though he does comically over-emphasis it at times, presumably as part of his ‘characterisation’) but rather his tendency to rush to the ‘dramatic top’ too quickly. In the worst cases this leaves McCoy with nothing but barely intelligible snarling with which to finish his lines; the final scene with Morgaine being a good case in point, as is his threat to (something sounding vaguely like) decapitate Mordred in Part Three. And they said Tom Baker could be over the top...

The Doctor and Ace's annoying tendency to bellow one another's name as they barrel into rooms is also very apparent in this particular story: “Aaaace!!!”; “Doooctooor!!!”

But this extended video release does see the restoration of one of Ace's best scenes ever, wherein Sophie Aldred gives us a brief glimpse of her character's motives in her relationship with the Doctor. Very refreshing before we got Ace-overkill in the following three stories! This scene also explains her antagonism toward the Brigadier, a previously removed subplot. Its re-inclusion does make the sight of Ace almost hugging him on the lake-side, as their combined explosive expertise destroys the submerged craft, very satisfying. It can't be denied that this particular Doctor and companion combination was hugely popular, but Battlefield belongs to Morgaine and the Brig!

‘...thanks to (Merlin's) tremendous knowledge... he has long since prepared for Arthur's arrival and has minutely set the stage for his entrance into the world, whereupon he will guide and protect him continuously, much like a director of dramatic events.’
- From an analysis of Geoffrey of Monmouth's ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, 1136

The Destroyer has been called a metaphor for nuclear destruction (in Cornell, Day and Topping's The Discontinuity Guide) and monotonously compared to ‘Darkness’, the demon from the Ridley Scott film Legend. The nuclear metaphor is appealing, but the comparison to the film seems a little tenuous, particularly as the Destroyer was developed by Susan Moore and Stephen Mansfield from an original maquette which bears even less resemblance to the bright-red Tim Curry from Legend! Whatever next; a counterclaim that Ridley Scott stole his design from The Dæmons?

This aside, the resulting creature is an absolute triumph for the programme, setting a standard of design and execution, which we were never to see equalled. As part of the brief given to the designers, the Destroyer is a proud-looking and distinguished creature, while still fulfilling the essential ‘behind the sofa scare-requirements’. Marek Anton then brings it all to life with a performance of suppressed but elemental power, even adding a sense of irony and cunning, enhanced yet further by effective lighting.

Pity about the costume though. The budget obviously went on the Destroyer's head, hands and saliva, leaving only a spare suit of armour of the kind that everyone from another dimension seems to wear in this story.

We are given many other effective visual treats, too. The flying scabbard which almost skewers Warmsly, a CGI defence system which seems to prefigure the ‘Master Snake’ from the TV Movie, and the sunken trans-dimensional craft itself, the outward appearance of which apparently beats Deep Space Nine to the punch by several years.

Mention of the flying scabbard brings the entire Part Two sequence in the Gore Crow Hotel to mind. It is wonderfully atmospheric, and full of portents of doom, with our protagonists sheltering from the mounting supernatural storm. The Doctor is obviously rattled as he warns them: “No-one is to go outside... There are things out there in the dark you wouldn't want to meet...”

But what about the script itself or rather the confusing way in which events seem to unfold? The sequence of plotting almost seems designed to deliberately work against the telling of the story. Why does the Brigadier spend most of the first two episodes in a helicopter (just how far is his home from London - he doesn't live in the Far East, does he?), when he has apparently been called back into service urgently?

Why is the magnificent (and no doubt expensive), Destroyer only used in a single episode and even then given very little to do?

And what is the purpose of the battle itself? UNIT and Morgaine's forces don't appear to be directly opposed in their respective purposes, so the event which comprises the title of this story (the battle) is actually little more than a disorganised and rather pointless ‘rumble’.

More generally; why does almost nothing happen in Part One, and too much happen in Part Four? As Ace says in Part Two, “I think the timer needs some work!” The Brigadier's heroic death might really have elevated this story, but Courtney was apparently told that ‘too much else was happening’ in Part Four for an event like that to have proper impact.

So it seems the production team elected to go for an over-stuffed last episode, instead of putting the script another once or twice through script editing, and then bravely delivering the tragic conclusion which the first two episodes are spent gearing up for!

‘Well, said Merlin, I know whom thou seekest, for thou seekest Merlin: therefore seek no farther, for I am he...’
‘Le Mort D'Arthur’

- Sir Thomas Malory, c.1460

Battlefield combines magic and technology in such a way that begs mention of a certain famous Arthur C. Clarke quotation. Sure enough, it is recited in Part Three: “Any (sufficiently) advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

The raw material for this combination comes from a mining of the various Arthurian myths, and placing of the resulting elements in a more-or-less contemporary English setting. The armoured visitors are from another dimension where, the Doctor tells us, “Arthur the man was closer to the myth”, and the Time Lord himself was apparently Merlin.
“Are you Merlin?” asks Ace, directly.
“No, but I could be, in the future”, the Doctor replies, “my personal future - which could be the past...”

Merlin is revealed to be a very good candidate for our Time Lord in the various Arthurian Romances, as shown by this passage from Arthur and the Grail: ‘(Merlin) has an undeniable sense of what sometimes resembles black humour... He can take the most divergent shapes, or materialise out of nothing. Neither does he shrink from tasks which have apparently more to do with engineering than tricks of magic. Furthermore, he is unmistakably an intellectual...’

There's even a demon to be found in earlier versions of these legends: Gwyn ap Nud or Avallach, the dread king of the elves (when elves were malignant creatures to be feared). He is eventually defeated by a hermit armed with holy water, in a similar way to the Destroyer's downfall at the hands of another pure and sacred substance: silver.

UNIT's raison d'entre is the escorting of a nuclear missile, which the Doctor identifies by its ‘graveyard stench’. Its appearance is, of course, a huge signpost to a climax involving a computerised launch countdown and a big red abort button. It is a well-intentioned subplot, however, with the ultra-modern weapon contrasting strongly with all the medieval chivalry on show and thereby giving the Doctor a chance to preach about the horror of nuclear war.

The carnage of war in a more general sense is also addressed. Ancelyn and Bambera may be initially united in their purpose to “fight and die... with some style”, but when surveying a fallen knight at the end of the battle, Winifred seems to feel some of the futility of needless killing. This, in turn, makes the Destroyer's satisfied reply to Morgaine's query about her army all the more chilling: “(They're) Gone, the way of all flesssssssssh!”

On a far more trivial level, Morgaine's ‘shooting down’ of the Brigadier's helicopter echoes an almost identical scene in Superman II, right down to the common disdain of alien women for human aviation technology.

‘All this made Merlin by his subtle craft... So like as Merlin devised it was done...’
‘Le Mort D'Arthur’

- Sir Thomas Malory, c.1460

“High drama is very similar to comedy - it's all a matter of timiiiiiiiiiing!”
“All over the world, fools are poised to let death fly.
Machinery of death, Morgaine!
A screaming from above, a light, brighter than the sun ...
Not a war between armies, nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad!
A child looks up into the sky, his eyes turn to cinders,
No more tears, only ashes...
Is this honour?
Are these weapons you would use?”

Battlefield is so full of great ‘set-pieces’ and memorable dialogue like the above, that it's one of the few stories I hadn't seen in a good few years that I could recall several scenes and lines from very vividly. But this may point to the problem with what in the final analysis is at best a mediocre story.

Wonderful elements are in place, but full appreciation of them is diminished by their presentation. Impressive scenes seem either crammed too closely together, or too thin on the ground for too long. The reason for the circumstances bringing these elements together is often ill-explained, with occasional off-the-mark direction or performances stifling other potential highlights.

The eternally blue skies and gloss of the abundant location filming, and frighteningly bombastic incidental music make Battlefield an archetypical Seventh Doctor story. In this ‘medieval witches’ cauldron' of a tale, all the right ingredients of Arthurian sorcery, the return of popular icons from the programme's past, and even an anti-nuclear message are present. Unfortunately, however, these tasty ingredients aren't held together especially well, or in quite the correct proportion or order.

In short: a more thorough mixing and longer baking time may have been required.

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Battlefield